Valhalla Falling: Six Flags, the 2000′s, and You

Though I majored in screenwriting at USC (which led to the diamond-encrusted, exceedingly dangerous infinity hot tub I’m now writing this blog post from), I briefly flirted with minoring in Advertising. If I had to explain why I did this, I would say it’s because I was discovering what an undisciplined, commercial-minded hack I was proving to be in screenwriting class, and figured “If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em” and then I didn’t even join ’em. This gave rise to a new saying I have, which goes “If you can’t beat ’em, or join ’em, shuffle aimlessly through life, see what fate befalls you, grumble at ’em as they succeed far beyond your wildest ambitions, save up for a house you never truly own and then die alone as all things do.”

Anyway, an extremely successful advertising executive stopped by our class, and I asked him what in his opinion would be the hardest failing brand to turn around. Without missing a beat, he said “Oldsmobile,” which made sense. It’s rather hard to convince teenagers, flush with cash and ready for their first car, that your mobile caters to their youthful interests when the name seems very much like your mobile caters to Olds instead. I didn’t ask my second question, “What is the worst ad campaign of all time,” because we all knew the answer was Six Flags.

Six Flags, in case you didn’t know, is Warner Bros.’ multi-million dollar grab bag of a theme park. Much like whether certain character actors are still alive, the state of Six Flags’ bankruptcy is the subject of mild debate that doesn’t really compel anyone to pull out their phones and investigate. I am almost positive there is a log flume somewhere in there, and if it’s not called Mandatory Rapids it should be. For coaster fanatics, and people who enjoy ironically calling them “coasters,” Six Flags offers you the five-second butthole-puckerings you’re looking for, as you clatter down miles and miles of orange steel with a fantastic view of the parking lot and your car baking in the noonday Valencia sun (for what it’s worth, I am a big fan of Goliath, Riddler’s Revenge and Tatsu, and very much enjoyed the time Maria took me there for my birthday). People may scoff at Disneyland obsessives, but anyone who gets married at Six Flags should probably be put on government watch lists. Its brand identity can best be described as “Bugs Bunny and Superman are generally present.” Their park motto was, and is, “At Least We’re Not Knott’s Berry Farm.” If there are any Six Flags super-fans, I’m just betting that they’re also Juggalos, and that he/she has a tattoo of Tweety Bird whimsically sprinting whilst holding two hatchets, saying “Flaggalo 4 Lyfe.” Clearly, something had to change in their advertising if Six Flags wanted to compete with the family fun zone destinations that are just a couple hours away.

So what would you and I do, if we were early 2000′s ad execs, driving Subaru Foresters and listening to current albums by System of a Down? Well, we could start with the animated versions of Superman and Batman exploring the park, declaring it an action-packed, funsational thrilltacular that kids of all ages will enjoy. You could have Bugs Bunny tunneling across the park, consistently making right turns at Albuquerque because psych! there are no wrong turns at a place this fun. Perhaps an ad where Snoopy could…um…oh wait, that’s right, Snoopy’s at Knott’s Berry Farm. Jesus.

What I’m saying is, you could rely on the decades of inroads that the Looney Tunes and DC’s stable of characters have made with children to get them to come to your park. Or, and I’m just spitballing here, you could instead dress up an impressionable young dancer in terrifying old-man makeup, have him track suburban children down in a giant bus, emerge with great ceremony, and proceed to get crunk to the most well-worn gay club anthem of the 90′s. Sure, it might be a little too expensive to get Kevin Conroy to say “There are no Dark Nights at this fun-porium,” and maybe Albuquerque is too vague a city for Bugs to reference in front of today’s children, so sure let’s go with plan B: A simulacrum of an old man, who it should be said almost never blinks, thrusting his limbs with astonishing dexterity and precision to a song that can best be categorized as “Jock Jams That Make Homophobic Middle Schoolers Question Their Sexuality In Gym Class.”

I’m struggling to connect the dots between “youngster’s chuckle palace” and “immortal, fetus-inhaling blood god wearing Wilt Chamberlain’s tux” but then again I stopped trying for my minor in Advertising, so what do I know? If I had to guess, I would say that Six Flags’ line of thinking was “children go nuts for things doing something they’re not supposed to do, like dogs talking, or geriatrics proudly defying the march of death.” Maybe they got back some research that said most people negatively associate “Theme Parks” with “Grandpa Sitting This One Out,” so they thought they’d send a message that said, loud and clear, not OUR park! The line forms behind Gramps at Six Flags, assholes, so deal with it! It could also just be a cry for help. Or, and this is my best guess, Six Flags’ dancing, bus-driving, childless, pied piper of bath house synth is the result of a Goliath-sized mountain of cocaine.

******

My research (yes) into this half-forgotten, all-misbegotten ad campaign tells me that the man-thing’s name is Mr. Six, which is perhaps only slightly more subtle than calling him Mr. Scratch. Sure, six is the ostensible number of flags the park has, but it’s also the preferred integer of the beast so I’m sticking with that. After he emerged from the pool of a bloody mattress and grew his stumps to full-length arms and legs, I think he then set about picking that name as a way of telling the police “You fools may know who I am, but you will never stop me from fulfilling the Dark Prophecy, so don’t waste your time.” If he was ever chased down by the FBI, probably after they ran the plates on his torture bus and found him in an abandoned meat hook factory in Ventura, I imagine an agent tackled him by the legs, only to feel Six slithering through the expanding mouth of his old skin, bones cracking and reforming, all accompanied by a hideous sucking sound and then an eardrum-rattling pop. Upon opening his eyes, the agent realized he was holding a deflated carcass, and dropped it in shock, watching Six gamboling away, naked and wet as a Cronenbergian jaybird. The agents’ sprinting came to a standstill, and in their helplessness and confusion they began to hear the strains of “We Like To Party” echoing past the churning Southern California oil derricks in the distance, Six’s reign of anarchy beginning anew, as it always had and indeed always would.

Take careful note in this ad of how Six rises when the sun begins to enrich his lizard skin, fueling him with enough power to corrupt souls and devour mankind’s essence for the day. He bolts upright almost immediately, the way bad actors do when they emerge from a nightmare drenched in sweat, except that really this is Six’s world and we are the ones living in a nightmare of his design. Unable to contain his glee at the lives he is about to tear asunder, he paws for his glasses, fingers a-tremble, toes wiggling in anticipation. This creature lives for ruin. He shuffles towards his closet, the only person suit he’s ever needed to wear right in front of him: An ill-fitting mess of sleeves from the men’s section at David’s Bridal, all the better to contain his stretching, shifting, gurgling skin, and a bow tie as red as blood. Rumor has it if he bares his chest in front of you, you can see the swirling, roiling chaos of our galaxy forming in his torso. Look inside his mouth and you can see how you’ll die.

Six then escapes the nursing home where no one else appears to be living (did they ever? Is our entire existence sewn together by the inscrutable threads of Six’s dream logic?), dusts off his crimson Trolley of the Damned, and roars out of the barn where he was laying low during the last seven amber alerts to go frolic in an abandoned theme park, the place where his eons of richly-sown chaos have taught him are best to subsume the organs of the young. All by himself, he trims the hedges, cleans the windows and buffers the coasters of a theme park 212 hectares in size; his energy is that tireless, his goal that all-consuming. He is not a man. He is not even a demon. He is a concept, a force of nature. He is the greed that consumes family members of lottery winners, he is the whisper of addiction in your ear telling you one drink couldn’t hurt, even though you’re pregnant.

Eventually Six Flags understood that Mr. Six was less an arbiter of thrillarious good-family fun-times than a reality-bending, 400-mph rocket ride into the uncanny valley, so to celebrate Frightfest at their park, they trucked out the Hellseed himself to coax a Final Girl from the confines of her home and into the park. Please pay special attention to the chiaroscuro compositions on his face as lightning flashes across the sky, his every shuffle step accompanied by another thunderclap. This conveys to the viewer that the war between Light and Darkness means nothing to this Spawn of The Inferno. Whether day or night, rain or shine, Six will find you and he will collect what is his. Also: Wasn’t the girl just screaming in terror at the sound of the Vengaboys coming through her phone? What is it about Mr. Six’s gyrations that could possibly make the song more palatable? Or has she given up hope, knowing once you are seen by Six, you are chosen, and your doom is written in the scriptures of the Before Times?

Eventually, he takes her to Six Flags, as all things must arrive there for their reckoning one day or another, and they are accosted by zombies, wolves and vampires. Big frigging deal, when your soul is already prostrate under the thumb of Six himself, but still she runs, deeper into the yawning chasm of thrillcoasters where the lines between pain and pleasure are blurred beyond mortal description. Six, however, elects to take his time with the girl, so cruel is his design, and immediately commands the beasts to dance with him in perfect synchronicity. This is Mr. Six at the height of his powers, demonstrating his dominion over evil. He is the God of Monsters, no others have come before him, no others after.

Dear Six Flags: Why does it burn when I pee? Just kidding, I know why. But seriously, why the old guy?

Curiously, there isn’t one mention of Six’s existence on Six Flag’s corporate FAQ, though after being confronted with the machinations of The Dark Prince of the Maternity Ward in TV ads for so many years, I can’t imagine any concerned parkgoer asking anything but questions about Mr. Six. Ever since I first saw the ads as a teenager, I had several myself:

*What do we do now that we know Hell is real? Which religion’s version of Hell best fits the description of Mr. Six, which God do we beg for forgiveness?

*Is science studying Mr. Six? Can any needle break his skin to do so, would his saliva melt through the floors and floors of the underground research facility?

*Why is Mr. Six the first thing I see when I close my eyes?

*Will Mr. Six come for me if I illegally download music on The Pirate Bay?

*I heard Mr. Six specifically say the name “Briaaaaaan” during one of your advertisements, looking directly into camera. Was the ad always shot this way? Did you do multiple takes, with multiple childrens’ names? Please say yes to one of these questions.

*Why specifically did you choose the song “We Like to Party” by the Vengaboys? Did you want there to be no mistaking that Mr. Six’s red bus is also the Vengabus, and that it is, indeed, coming? Was the ascendance of The Vengaboys’ hit single, 5 years ago, some sort of sign of the forthcoming apocalypse? Is the “Inter-city disco” mentioned in the song part of Mr. Six’s nefarious Grand Blood Schematic, as several conspiracy theory websites have led me to believe?

*This Grand Blood Schematic I was just bringing up: Is the Mayan prophecy of the year 2012 involved? Does it have anything to do with the patterns recently found in six different areas of the US where six-hundred-and-sixty-six goats have mysteriously gathered?

*Mr. Six’s favored motto is “It’s Playtime!” Again, I hear “playtime,” but my mind’s telling me “Grand Blood Schematic.” Your thoughts, park.

*Is Mr. Six bioluminescent? I ask because I have a related question about the light coming from underneath my bed at night.

*I noticed you have a Six Flags location in Mexico, congratulations on cracking that market. In your advertising for Mexican audiences, is Mr. Six referred to as Señor Seis, or is it just less complicated in this instance for you to go with El Diablo?

*I was walking along the abandoned train tracks yesterday, skipping rocks and eating sour straws, when I thought I heard a train coming. That felt weird to me, because I knew the tracks were out miles ahead and miles behind me, but nevertheless I knew safety came first. So I felt the tracks with my hand, but there were no vibrations, none at all. Then as I stood up, I saw it bearing down right on me: A glistening, coal-black steam engine, with a whistle that sounded suspiciously like a thousand pigs bleating in a deep cave. I dove into the shallow river below, dislocating my shoulder, and as I looked up, right before my eyes rolled back into my head and I passed out, I saw Mr. Six wearing a conductor’s cap staring right at me. Why did you create Mr. Six?

******

It wasn’t until much later that I finally mustered the courage to delve into the history of just how Mr. Six really came to be. Doner Advertising conjured him into existence when Six Flags’ sales were flagging — and guess what, snarky blogging assholes of the world, it worked. According to a 2004 USA Today article,

Of those familiar with the campaign, 39% like the ads “a lot,” nearly double the Ad Track average of 21%.The ads stack up well with women: 41% vs. 36% of men give them the top rating. That hits a key target for Six Flags, because women, who influence 85% of purchases, usually make the call on family fun, too. “She makes the decision to pay for the tickets,” [Senior VP of Marketing, Hank] Salemi says.Just 9% of consumers “dislike” the ads vs. the Ad Track average of 13%, while 29% consider the ads “very effective,” above the Ad Track average of 21%.“This campaign has been unprecedented in the amount of positive responses,” Salemi says. “We’re optimistic it’s going to do well for us this summer, but it’s too early” to tell.

So, 39% liked the ads “a lot,” and 9% “disliked” them. What this survey doesn’t remark upon are the remaining 52% of people who were “found dead on the ceiling, blood trickling from the backs of their unconscious heads to spell the word SOON before all the lightbulbs burst in the room and their bodies disappeared.” I don’t know if that really fits into the rubric their survey had imagined, but that doesn’t mean their opinion should be discarded either.

Mr. Six’s star continued to rise, as more and more of America simply could not get enough of The Unholy Defiler and his Mr. Six-may-care attitude. Six Flags even held a national dance contest to see who could dress and dance the most like him, as if Mr. Six were not already more than adept at assuming human form and mimicking us just fine. This contest was our way of turning the interdimensional mirror on itself, our way of telling Six, we are aware of your power and your might. We know you will do with us as you please. We only ask that you observe our pleas for mercy, and that we are prepared to do your bidding.

And so Mr. Six was pleased.

The dejected nonbeliever behind Mr. Six and to the left will be the first one to be reaped by the Omnicron

Nevertheless, Mr. Six’s reign of terror had to come to an end*, because eventually Six Flags was purchased by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. You know, Dan Snyder? From #cancelcolbert? Anyway, in a stunning twist for a story already built upon a foundation of jaw-dropping business decisions, the guy who founded The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation managed to come up with the best idea for the Six Flags brand going forward, which was “stop what we are doing right now and do anything, any other thing than this.” Inexplicable bastion of sanity Dan Snyder was apparently quoted saying Mr. Six was “pointless,” which makes sense in that a grimacing, millenia-old pink sand worm doing the Melbourne Shuffle does not adequately appeal to the target demo of Anyone On Planet Earth — but in another way, Mr. Six’s existence despite his pointlessness shone a light on the universe’s paradoxical void of meaning, justice and sense. None of our lives truly matters, none of us is here for a reason. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Six was trying to tell us all along: There is no moral force guiding us to Valhalla, the only certainty is pain.

Then Dan Snyder greenlit these ads instead.

So yeah maybe he’s just a racist piece of shit as always and, governed by a man such as Snyder, Six Flags continued to writhe in the chaos of not understanding their own brand, and indeed the entirety of the cosmos by extension.

But let’s talk about that campaign for just a second: Which plucky, enterprising shoeshine boy on the street told Six Flags’ marketing team, for the price of a shiny new quarter, that flags are all the rage amongst the kids these days? That, indeed, a shapeless concept such as “fun” could finally be measured by the number of flags you have present? If that’s the case — if flags contain all the chemical and physical properties of fun — is six really the ceiling here? Haven’t more flags than six been tested in laboratories, just to see if maybe we can get to seven or ten or dare I say it twelve flags? And let’s just say for the sake of argument that a group of Cern scientists opened up a portal of dark matter trying to collide the particles of seven flags, so we’re sticking with six as the limit for now — can’t another theme park just come along, call itself Seven Flags, and your average layman will be none the wiser? Why would you open up this can of worms by attaching numbers to fun?

Also, if I’m not mistaken, I think Disneyland has far more than six flags flying at any given point in its park. We’re talking at least a hundred flags, not including souvenir flags or the American one. This whole theory may need to be peer-reviewed.

*I bet you thought this asterisk would come back as a mere footnote. How pathetically wrong you are! It’s still part of the article! Nothing can truly contain Mr. Six but Mr. Six himself, nothing can end his time for he is the End Times. And so it was that Dan Snyder caved to the pressures of shareholders and Cenobites alike, when Mr. Six was reintroduced in 2009 to resume his inexorable, temporal loop of ultimate tribulation. Or, as new senior VP of marketing Angie Vieira Barocas then put it to Time Magazine:

We had a lot of internal conversations about Mr. Six, and we were like, Look, he’s beloved by our guests,” says Vieira Barocas. “There are definitely people who are not fans of him. But he has more fans than not. And at a time when there’s all sorts of uncertainty, people like the familiar and the known.”

This notion of retreating to Mr. Six as “the known” stands at great odds with his demolition of the concept of “the known,” since there is no precedent for an ad campaign this broken, thiscobbled-together from dimensions unspeakable, and there never will be no matter how many times you take Mr. Six away and bring him back to increase the sensation of “nostalgia.” Foolish, mortal flesh-servant Barocas continues:

“We know he’s a polarizing character,” Vieira Barocas says. “But on any day I would rather that someone have an opinion about us and our brand than for him to just melt into the background with all the other advertising that is out there. Would I prefer that you and other critics find him appealing? Absolutely. But I will take the fact that you notice, that you hear our message and that you have a point of view.”

The problem is that “the other advertising out there” includes Disney, the greatest marketing superpower the world has ever known. They break their own records more often than Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and a particularly-depressed, just-disgraced Milli Vanilli put together. World Series-winning athletes did their marketing for them, just by saying “I’m going to Disneyland.” If you dared Disney to pitch a theme park commercial led by an octogenarian, here’s what they’d do after a crack of the knuckles and not a moment’s further delay:

  • They’d start in 1955, when Disneyland first opened, tracking a young boy as he races through the park on opening day.
  • They’d track the little boy as he grows up, has his first kiss at Disneyland, works at the concession stands, sees the fireworks explode in the hazy, creamy Los Angeles sky, as we fade to:
  • A child resting on his grown shoulders, his daughter, as she marvels at the wonders of Disney magic swirling and sparkling from every crevasse of Main Street, and in case you thought this ad wouldn’t target you 80′s babies and your memories of growing up in the park, whooboy get ready because here comes the Electric Light Parade, Fantasmic, Indiana Jones, the unassailable Winnie the Pooh and Space Mountain.
  • But now time has passed and our little boy is an elderly grandfather. Now Disney is just screwing with you, they’re so on top of their game that they don’t even care that they’re cribbing shamelessly from “Up.” He has to sit down on a park bench because he can barely handle the strain of walking through the park he loves so much. He’s a young boy trapped in an old man’s body, and it’s killing him that he can’t handle the attractions he loved so much when he was younger. See, Six Flags? This is how you humanize old people. Who cares, you’re not even on our level anyway, this would just be lost on you.
  • His granddaughter bounds over to him. What’s wrong, she wonders? Then the New Orleans Square jazz band strikes up a tune nearby, and the old man’s daughter walks over, a grown woman herself, smiles at him encouragingly. He finds it in himself to get up and dance with his baby granddaughter, two-stepping slowly, the fire still flickering inside with the help of Disneyland Magic and go fuck yourself BOOM BABY HERE COMES ANOTHER CLEO GUESS THE LAST DOORSTOP WAS LOSING ITS LUSTRE ANYWAY
  • HEY
  • HEY SIX FLAGS
  • TELL YOU WHAT: WE’LL LICENSE OUT OLAF THE SNOWMAN FROM “FROZEN” TO YOU FOR $2 MILLION, JUST TO SEE HOW BADLY YOU MESS HIM UP IN YOUR MARKETING
  • NO SERIOUSLY, WE LOOOOVED WHAT YOU DID WITH MR. SIX, THE DANCING VENGABUS OLD GUY, WE THINK YOUR RANDOM ASSORTMENT OF COASTERS WOULD BE THE PERFECT PLACE FOR OLAF
  • AWW SIX FLAGS WHERE YOU GOIN’ MAN COME BACK
  • SIX FLAGS DON’T GET IN YOUR CAR, WE WERE JUST HAVIN’ FUN HERE HAVE A STRAWBERRY CHURRO THEY GOT MICKEY MOUSE EARS ON THE ENDS
  • SIX FLAGS, YOU GOTTA PAY FOR PARKING MAN, THAT’S $15

******

As I hinted at earlier, the sordid history of Six Flags’ ad campaigns is what happens when you don’t understand your own brand, when you want to deliver nondescript, personality-free thrills to surly teenagers but also want to identify yourself as more than just a place where roving packs of high schoolers cut in front of you. It takes more than putting $4 soda machines every 50 feet in your greasy, 3-hour-long lines. It takes more than just slapping your average row of boardwalk carnival games in front of a mini-Pizza Hut. It involves stepping up and OWNING what you are.

The problem is, Six Flags is sharply divided between the high-octane whoa-splosions of Goliath and X2, and the fact that, well, they do have the IPs to kiddie properties like Superman and Sylvester the Cat, so they may as well not waste them. But their inability to gather all their identities under one expertly-branded roof of “Warners Magic,” if you will, does a disservice to both crowds and what they come to the park for. When you’re left with nothing to pin your park on, it starts to make sense how a marketing team could float “What about total chaos” in the room and have it gain traction. Yeah. Yeah! Total chaos! What about a be-tuxed, fiendish, wrinkly carcass with a young man’s eyes pleading to you from the cavernous depths of ten layers of makeup, and you think he can’t dance but look out cause he totally can, here comes dancing Gramps, and he bends a tire iron around your Dad’s wrists, pinning him to the stop sign on the street where you live, and begins to do unspeakable things to his torso? Six Flags! We will not melt into the background, with all the other advertising! Mr. Six, he’ll steal your ribs! Hear our message!!

“Hi, I’m Johnny Knoxville, and this is the ‘Enter A Theme Park And Become Its Mascot For Nearly a Full Decade!’”

You know what Six Flags has going for it? It’s got genuinely fun roller-coasters, if you can handle them. The water park next door is similarly not for the faint-of-heart on some of its slides, but if you pony up for line-jumping passes, it too is worth it. In fact, it’s so flagrantly cheaper than Disneyland that you could go to it twice and still have money left over for a 3D TV that you would then throw off the Magic Mountain Parkway overpass just for kicks. And those long lines don’t exist, at all, when it’s not the weekend or the summertime. You can hit every major attraction inside of three hours if you play your cards right. I’ll say it again: Maria took me here for my birthday, it was a great present and we had a perfectly grand time. Lord knows, since our Disneyland passes expired, it was just the kind of fun, coastery day I wanted to spend with her.

And finally, it’s unpretentious, to put it very kindly. What other park would even fucking dare do something like this? Even Knott’s Berry Farm had to be staring at Six Flags, going “whoa, hey Six Flags, you’re…you’re crazy, man…” backing up slowly, chuckling nervously. I like to imagine the T. Rex from Universal Studio’s Jurassic Park ride, just staring blankly in abject horror at something older than itself dancing to the Vengaboys. This whole operation took balls that another multi-million dollar brand could not have possibly conceived of on their worst day. You wanna talk Disney magic? Six Flags just ripped open the portal from Stephen King’s The Mist and plucked out Mr. Six. Whole dissertations could be written on what this means, when the money machine breaks down, and the shiny baubles you see inbetween gales of canned laughter onThe Big Bang Theory break, revealing a festering core of maggots underneath. Six Flags’ ad campaign is a companion piece to True Detective.

Time is a flag circle.